Tag Archives: European Commission

The anti-EU, anti-Soros campaigns continue with renewed vigor

As Der Spiegel reported yesterday afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked her opinion of the outcome of the meeting between the presidency of the European People’s Party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, remarked that promises are one thing but she is waiting for “the actual results.” It seems that Viktor Orbán can no longer hoodwink European politicians. They have learned over the years that it is foolhardy to trust Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians.

Merkel’s comment came after the meeting about which we now know a little more. Today Der Spiegel reported that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and Orbán, who were seated next to one another, engaged in an extended, vehement argument. At one point Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, apparently warned Orbán that the regional subsidies could be reduced in the future.

Der Spiegel opined that the EPP leadership is mistaken if they think that Orbán’s verbal agreement will be translated into deeds. This is also more or less what Rafał Trzaskowski, a Polish MP from the Civic Platform party who participated in the EPP meeting, suggested when he said that “the question is now whether he will follow what he says. Then, obviously, he can stay with us.” This comment, which I missed yesterday, further convinces me that Fidesz’s position in the EPP is not at all secure and the question of expulsion did come up during the meeting.

Admittedly, only one day has passed since the EPP meeting, but there is no sign of any let-up in anti-EU, anti-Soros propaganda in Hungary. On the contrary, it seems to me that Orbán’s answer to his “humiliation” is open defiance. Nobody really commented on the fact that Viktor Orbán was accompanied by Antal Rogán, his propaganda minister, during his stay in Brussels. Rogán sat silently next to him during his appearance before the European Parliament, and he could be seen at the brief encounter with journalists after the European Council meeting was over on Saturday afternoon.

Orbán’s forced grin may be a sign of discomfort

Rogán’s task is to explain to the Hungarian people what “really” happened in Brussels. He started his propaganda campaign this morning by giving an interview on Magyar Rádió’s “Vasárnapi Újság” in which he emphasized Hungary’s right to maintain positions different from those of the EU majority on certain issues. If necessary, the Hungarian government will take legal action to defend this right. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Central European University, the NGOs, or the “Stop Brussels” campaign. His concern was the migrant question. On this there can be no compromise, Rogán maintained. As for Fidesz’s relationship with the EPP, Rogán came up with an intriguing scenario. His claim is that George Soros has been working behind the scenes to have Fidesz expelled from the EPP. According to Rogán, Soros is also putting pressure on the European Union to force Hungary to dismantle the fence and the transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but this is not negotiable.

We know that the migrant question was discussed during the EPP meeting because politico.hu reported that Saturday’s meeting became tense “when Orbán said he will never accept Muslim migrants” into his country. The refugee crisis is Orbán’s most effective political weapon. Orbán contends that the refugees who came through the Balkans were not desperate people running away from war and the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Instead, someone for political reasons must have encouraged these men and women to migrate to Europe. Orbán first blamed Angela Merkel, who invited the refugees to Germany. Later he pointed the finger at George Soros, the perfect scapegoat for his political purposes. By accusing Soros of evil designs against Hungary and, in fact, against the whole of Europe, he can move against both the bothersome NGOs and Central European University. CEU may not interfere with his policies as some of the NGOs do, but an independent university over which he has no jurisdiction remains an irritant.

Bence Rétvári, undersecretary of the ministry of human resources, identified Soros as the source of all the problems Europe and Hungary are facing today. Soros’s meeting with Juncker especially bothers the members of the Orbán government. They envisage a whole Soros network that “applies pressure on the country.” Rétvári directed another attack on Central European University and its president, Michael Ignatieff, who after all “led the Canadian Liberal party and therefore behaves like a politician.” Despite all the protestation, he claims, CEU is not an independent university.

The brand new “Stop Brussels!” and anti-Soros ad, which runs on several television channels, can be seen here with English subtitles.

Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., an extreme right-winger and an active member of the government-sponsored CÖF, a pseudo-NGO, demanded on M1, the state television news station, that the 226 members of the European Parliament named in a document released by DC Leaks should be investigated because of the possibility that they serve foreign interests. Lomnici is referring to a publication prepared by the KumQuat Consult for Open Society European Policy Institute titled “Reliable allies in the European Parliament (2014-2019).” The list contains mostly Social Democratic, Green, and Liberal politicians. Lomnici pointed out that of the 17 MEPs who spoke during the plenary session on the Hungarian question 11 appeared on the Open Society’s list. Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-government think tank, devoted an opinion piece to the subject in which the author listed such important politicians as Martin Schulz, Olli Rehn, Gianni Pittella, Guy Verhofstadt, Sophie in’t Veld, and Ulrike Lunacek. Even Frank Engel, a Christian Democrat, is listed, which naturally explains why Engel would like to see Fidesz expelled from the EPP. Magyar Idők was pleased to report that Prime Minister Robert Fico is also contemplating steps to achieve “the transparency of civic organizations in Slovakia” and that the Polish government, just like Hungary, has problems with the Norwegian Fund.

The current Macedonian crisis is a godsend for the Orbán government’s Soros bashing. I should note here that Hungary, alongside Russia, is backing the Macedonian president, Gjorge Ivanov, who was a guest of the Orbán government about a month ago. On April 18 a Fidesz member of parliament addressed a question to Péter Szijjártó concerning the situation in Macedonia where, in his opinion, George Soros is behind the disturbances in Skopje. “The people of Macedonia have had enough of this and they began a ‘Let’s Stop Soros’ movement.” László Szabó, undersecretary in the foreign ministry, the man who will be the next Hungarian ambassador in Washington, replied. He claimed that Soros has been organizing anti-government demonstrations ever since May 2015. Since then, Péter Szijjártó released a statement about foreign interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the statement published by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.

In any case, the anti-Soros campaign is going on with renewed intensity as is the campaign to sign and return the “Stop Brussels!” national consultation questionnaires, to which both the European Commission and the presidency of the European People’s Party have strenuously objected. In fact, the government just launched a new campaign to urge people to return the questionnaires because they will play a vital role in the government’s defense of the country against the attacks by the European Union. At the same time, the government is trying to explain away the real meaning of the national consultation which, according to the latest interpretation, is simply a way of expressing the Hungarian government’s intentions to reform and improve the structure of the European Union. Somehow, I don’t think that Frans Timmermans and Joseph Daul will fall for this latest ruse of Viktor Orbán.

April 30, 2017

Viktor Orbán before the European Parliament

I watched the full debate on Hungary in the European Parliament and took copious notes throughout, but here I will offer only some overall impressions. I found Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, most impressive, especially since he kept his message to Viktor Orbán brief but to the point. He emphasized the difference between “opinions” and “facts,” intimating that while the Commission’s objections to the Hungarian government’s actions and policies are based on facts, Hungarian answers to their objections are not.

I can’t stress enough the duplicity of members of the Orbán government and its servile media. Every sentence they utter must be scrutinized because it usually turns out that the claims they make to bolster their arguments are unfounded. The EU commissioners have been lied to for at least seven years, if not longer. But it seems that not until this latest “national consultation” did they realize the extent of the lies. Six statements, six falsehoods. Although Frans Timmermans talked about several problems, he spent most of his time on those six statements, refuting them one by one. The false claims, along with the refutations, can be read on the European Commission’s website as well as in the Budapest Business Journal.

The European Commission naturally had several other major objections to the Orbán government’s policies–among them, discrimination against women, treatment of the Roma, the criminal code, the attack on NGOs, and of course the crude attempt at shuttering Central European University.

The answer Timmermans received from Orbán was, as usual, full of inaccurate statements. Orbán proudly pointed out how unsuccessful the European Commission and Parliament have been in enforcing their will on Hungary, starting with the Tavares Report, which he described as “an embarrassing failure.” (For those of you who no longer remember what the Tavares Report was all about, I recommend reading my post on the acceptance of the report by the European Parliament and Professor Kim Scheppele’s “In praise of the Tavares Report,” which also appeared in Hungarian Spectrum.) And if that weren’t enough, Orbán decided to make clear what he thinks of those who “warmly receive a ruthless speculator who ruined many lives and who is an open enemy of the European Union.” Otherwise, he didn’t accept any of the objections to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign or to his country’s treatment of the NGOs. He accused the EU leaders of anti-Hungarian prejudice. In brief, since he couldn’t really counter the objections, he had to rely on ad hominem attacks.

Orbán’s so-called rebuttal was followed by short speeches from the leaders of the EP parties, all of whom, with the exception of the far-right groups, were critical of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government. If you visit the website of Hungarian Free Press, you will find a good summary of some of these speeches. HFP’s review of the events spends some time on the comments of Esther de Lange, a Dutch Christian Democratic politician and member of the European People’s Party, who said: “I feel pain in my heart because I recall the other Fidesz, which wanted to be part of a united Europe. It is not the first time that it appears that developments in Hungary are going against European values…. Are you really the type of man who must paint an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of ‘Brussels’ as an enemy, in order to appear stronger at home?” To this I would add a comment made in a similar vein by the Austrian Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party) who recalled that this is the third time that Orbán appears before the European Parliament. Unlike before, he no longer wants any dialogue. “You must be weak because you want to scrap CEU. You must be scared of freedom and criticism. You are scared of democracy.” Finally, she noted that not even EPP members encouraged him with their applause. Only far-right groups are behind him.

Source: Politico / Photo: Emmanuel Dunnand / AFP

Orbán’s final speech was a great deal less bellicose then his introductory remarks. In fact, I would describe it as subdued. He assured his audience that his government is ready to engage with the EU on all the issues, some of which will be settled easily. It looked as if he was truly worried about Fidesz’s possible expulsion from EPP which, given the present mood of the majority, is unlikely. He was also upset by references to his opposition to Brussels , all the while eagerly accepting EU funds. “What we receive is not a gift,” he said. Statements about his lack of democratic convictions also bothered him. Judging from his facial expression, the accusation that he is “a copy of Putin and Erdoğan” especially pained him. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from uttering yet another lie. He tried to explain away the “illiberal” label he himself attached to his political system. His new take is that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” is simply “a democracy led by non-liberals.” I can’t imagine anyone in the European Parliament believing that linguistic invention.

Finally, here is a tidbit that no one has yet called attention to. Zoltán Balczó of Jobbik also delivered a short speech. Although he declared his party’s opposition to Soros’s Open Society, he added that “Jobbik doesn’t accept the government’s attack on Central European University. We are waiting for the final word from the Constitutional Court.” What surprised me most was the way he closed his speech: “We are against this corrupt regime.” I never thought I would hear a Jobbik MEP utter those words.

I’m sure that in the next days and weeks the Hungarian media will be full of predictions about the outcome of this latest “war” between Orbán and the European Commission. In fact, the debate has already begun. But I would counsel against hasty calls. Orbán may not be as sure of himself and his success against Brussels as his public posturing would indicate. According to Magyar Nemzet, several Fidesz heavyweights have been cautioning him against using inflammatory rhetoric and assuming a combative attitude. Meanwhile, Népszava got hold of an e-mail sent to all the other members of the European People’s Party by the 12 Fidesz members. Their tone is in stark contrast to Orbán’s bellicosity. “We are not perfect, not all of our experiments are successful, but we are flexible and we are ready for serious discussions about the future of our country and of Europe.” They said they stand “very far from those who work for the destruction of Europe.” Finally, they wrote that they “are members of the club and accept both the benefits and the burdens” that go with membership. Their final words were: “We do make mistakes; we are not perfect; and we are ready to correct them.”

And, of course, as I said the other day, the Hungarian constitutional court may step in to lift the uncomfortable burden of the CEU law from the shoulders of the Orbán government.

April 26, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s regime under fire at home and abroad

It is difficult nowadays to write a post about the Hungarian political scene since it is almost impossible to predict what may happen in the next few minutes on the streets of Budapest, which are again filled with demonstrators.

One thing I have been pondering today in view of the latest U.S.-Hungarian clash over the Central European University (CEU) is the Orbán regime’s total ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government. Throughout the presidential campaign, interest in the Clinton/Trump duel was just as intense in Hungary as anywhere else in Europe. Yet day after day it was apparent that a great many journalists as well as politically engaged citizens were unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of the U.S. electoral law. I found this depressing. But when politicians who are supposed to make decisions affecting U.S.-Hungarian relations are ignorant of how U.S. diplomacy functions, we are in real trouble. And unfortunately, this is increasingly the case.

In the last three years the whole Hungarian diplomatic corps was decimated, and their places were filled with party loyalists who had no diplomatic experience. But even those who in the past 20 years were in important diplomatic positions and who are considered to be Atlantists, i.e. working for better U.S.-Hungarian relations, can come up with mind-boggling idiocies. The latest example comes from Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014. Commenting on Hoyt Brian Yee’s message to the Hungarian government, he said that Yee’s report on the U.S. government’s support for CEU is “only an opinion and in any case we are talking only about a deputy assistant secretary. Moreover, as far as I know, he has held this position for the last few years, so we ought to wait for the answer of the present American administration as to whether we can sign an agreement that would make CEU’s continued work possible.” What dilettantism and what arrogance, said Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu. The Orbán government assumed (and of course hoped) that the American response still reflected the thinking of the Obama administration. But a few hours after Németh’s comment Mark C. Toner, spokesperson of the State Department, confirmed Yee’s message. The most important sentence of Toner’s lengthy answer to a journalistic question was: “We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law.” The message cannot be clearer. The simplistic view of the Orbán government that, for Hungary, “Democratic rule is bad, Republican rule is good” was once again proved wrong. How could Viktor Orbán have forgotten his bad luck with George W. Bush after 9/11 when his insensitivity or perhaps planned insult got him into deep trouble with the Republican administration for the rest of his term?

Viktor Orbán has been a great deal more successful in his dealings with the European Union. For years he has been hoodwinking the hapless “bureaucrats.” But the “Stop Brussels” campaign and the farcical questionnaire of the so-called National Consultation helped them see the light. At last the College under the chairmanship of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans decided “to take stock of the issues at hand, in an objective, facts-based and law-based manner” concerning “the compatibility of certain actions of the Hungarian authorities with EU law and with our shared values.” Timmermans outlined the issues the European Commission and Parliament considered troubling. Heading the list was the fate of Central European University, but right after that came the announcement that “the Commission … decided that it will prepare and make public its own response to the Hungarian Government’s ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation.”

The current European Commission

Moreover, Timmermans accused Hungary of not abiding by Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reads: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The sins of the Orbán government are numerous: its attack on CEU and the NGOs, lack of transparency of funding, asylum questions, disregard of human dignity and freedom, and a lack of respect for human rights, tolerance, and solidarity. Of course, we have heard all this before, but what’s different this time is that Timmermans announced that they will complete the legal assessment of the Hungarian situation as soon as possible and “the College will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of the month.” In the European Union, where everything takes months if not years, the Hungarian issue seems to have priority. The EU’s criticisms didn’t go unnoticed in Poland. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, in an interview with MTI, the Hungarian news agency, labeled Timmermans’ announcement “blackmail.” Péter Szijjártó called it a “pathetic accusation.”

I left to the end a development that I find extremely important. Viktor Orbán’s whole political system relies on a three-pronged parliamentary structure. Fidesz is the “center power” with two opposition groups on its flanks: Jobbik on the right and assorted smaller parties on the left, where the right and left have diametrically opposed ideologies. This was the situation in Hungary between the two world wars, which ensured the government party’s supremacy from 1920 to 1944. The genius of this arrangement is that these two poles, due to their ideological incompatibility, are unlikely to unite against the middle.

But in the CEU case Jobbik opted to join ranks with the left. In Hungary 25% of parliamentary members can demand a review of a law by the Constitutional Court, even if it has already been signed by the president. LMP decided to invoke this procedure to trigger a Court review of the new anti-CEU law. To reach the 25% threshold LMP needed to muster 50 votes. If only LMP (5), MSZP (28), and all the independents (11) were to vote for the initiative, they would come up short. But Jobbik decided to add its 24 votes. Demokratikus Koalíció (4), whose members sit with the independents, opted not to join the others because DK doesn’t consider the Fidesz-majority Constitutional Court a legitimate body. Thus, 64 members of parliament joined together in an action against Fidesz. Of course, the Jobbik spokesman emphasized that the decision was made only to save the rule of law in Hungary, and he kept repeating that this doesn’t mean an endorsement of George Soros or his university. But the fact remains that Jobbik decided to join the rest of the opposition. (At the time of the vote on the law on higher education they simply didn’t vote.) This Jobbik decision may have significant consequences.

As I write this, tens of thousands are demonstrating in Budapest, all over the city. The cause is no longer just CEU and the NGOs but democracy and a free Hungary.

April 12, 2017

The perils of being an opposition politician in Hungary

I don’t know whether I will be able to make a coherent story out of the mess the Orbán government most likely has purposefully created regarding the report of the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on irregularities—fraud and possible corruption—in connection with the construction of Budapest’s fourth metro line (M4). The report covered the period between 2006 and 2015.

Although the Hungarian government received the OLAF report—or its English-language summary, the Hungarian public heard about it only from the English-language news site Politico. It didn’t take long before the Fidesz government and the Fidesz-led City of Budapest, on the one hand, and the politicians of the socialist-liberal government of the pre-2010 period, on the other, were at each other’s throats. The government claimed that practically all the financial wrongdoings were committed before 2010 while the opposition politicians accused the Orbán government of making political hay out of the case while refusing to make the report public. The administration claimed that it has no authority to release OLAF’s findings.

Most likely because of the holiday season at the end of the year, for about a month not much happened. Then, on January 16, János Lázár officially announced that he will file a complaint against Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth (MSZP), deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, a highly respected economist who for many years served as Gábor Demszky’s financial adviser. That announcement started an avalanche of often conflicting articles in the Hungarian media.

A day after Lázár’s announcement, his deputy Nándor Csepreghy gave a detailed press conference dealing with the Metro4 corruption case. The government found MTI’s report of that press conference so important that it was immediately translated into English. We learned from Csepreghy that the Fidesz government had had its own suspicions of fraud surrounding the project even before. The OLAF report only confirmed these suspicions.

Csepreghy disclosed a few relevant facts that might help our understanding of the case. For example, he revealed that the investigators of OLAF conducted interviews with 50 individuals, “including the competent executives and managers” of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) and the City of Budapest. In addition, Csepreghy named a few companies that had been involved in the construction of the metro line as possible culprits. He also gave the initials of certain individuals heading large public and private companies. Finally, he said that “there are dozens of actors mentioned in the report who were politicians, were associated with the realm of politics, or operated as semi-public actors.” Finally, he told the press that the “government’s legal advisers are currently looking into the possibility of disclosing the OLAF report to the public in its entirety, to which the Government is fully committed.”

Nándor Csepreghy at the press conference / Photo: Tamás Kovács (MTI)

Although the government filed a complaint against Demszky, Horváth, and Atkári, they weren’t among the individuals Csepreghy referred to by their initials. A Magyar Idők editorial found Demszky’s absence from the list especially regrettable. The former mayor will get off scot-free because “according to rumors, his name doesn’t appear to be in the report.” Only the CEOs of large companies will be prosecuted. But what will happen if they reveal “the name of the chief coordinator”? In brief, the journalist responsible for this editorial accuses Gábor Demszky of being the head of a conspiracy to commit fraud.

Meanwhile Hungarian members of the European Parliament decided to look into the question of whether the Hungarian government told the truth when it claimed that it needed the approval of OLAF to release the report and that it was waiting for OLAF’s response to its request. All three opposition MEPs–Csaba Molnár (DK), Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd), and István Ujhelyi (MSZP)–asked the head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, about OLAF’s position. All three claimed that, according to the information they received, it was up to the Hungarian government whether to release the document or not. Since there is a controversy over the meaning of the information received, I will rely on Ujhelyi’s statement, which includes the original English-language letter he received from OLAF. Here is the crucial passage:

In response to your question, since the OLAF final report has now reached its intended recipients, the Office is not in a position to decide on the possible release of the report. Such a decision belongs in the first place to the national authorities to which the report was addressed. It is for these authorities to assess the impact of a possible release of the report and to ensure compliance with the relevant legal obligations on judicial secrecy, data protection and procedural rights, including the right of access to file.

It is hard to fathom why the Orbán government again resorted to lying instead of appealing to the possible legal problems that could stem from the release of the report. Since then, Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, personally asked István Tarlós, who by now has a copy of the document, not to make the OLAF report public. It looks as if Péterfalvi, before making this request, consulted with János Lázár of the Prime Minister’s Office and Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, who are both against the release. Although there might be compelling legal reasons not to allow the publication of the OLAF report, given the reputation of Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office one cannot help being skeptical about the real reasons for the secrecy.

Over the weekend Gábor Demszky gave an interview to Vasárnapi Hírek in which he detailed his position on the case. Demszky said that, according to the rules of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, OLAF must give anyone mentioned in their investigative reports the opportunity to respond. Since no one contacted Demszky, Horváth or Atkári, it is probably safe to assume that they are not the subjects of the investigation. Even so, the Orbán government filed complaints against them. Demszky also said that because OLAF conducted its investigation between 2012 and 2016, “most of their information came from the offices of the Fidesz government.” OLAF, Demszky added, most likely accepted the information in good faith because its investigators don’t expect these offices to be swayed by political pressure.

I might add that one has to be very careful when assessing the veracity of witness testimony. We know from other politically motivated trials that witnesses often give false testimony. The most infamous was that of Zsolt Balogh, head of BKV. In order to save himself months of pre-trial custody, he invented the story that Miklós Hagyó (MSZP), one of the deputy mayors, demanded 40 million forints, to be delivered in a Nokia box.

The opposition parties are truly worried about the prospect of years of investigation by politically motivated Hungarian prosecutors. Even though in the past most defendants were eventually exonerated, they remained in limbo for years and their careers were ruined. We must also keep in mind that although OLAF has filed scores of such reports on cases involving fraudulent procurement practices, only four guilty verdicts have been handed down in the last almost seven years. Some cases, like that involving Orbán’s son-in-law, were unceremoniously dropped. The prosecutors’ sudden interest in this case indicates to me that they think they can use it to do damage to the opposition, one way or another. Evidence of culpability has never been the litmus test for deciding which cases to pursue.

January 30, 2017

OLAF finds irregularities–fraud and possible corruption–in the Metro-4 megaproject

So what else is new? Politico reported that the European anti-fraud office, OLAF, after looking into the financing of Budapest’s fourth metro line, found “serious irregularities—fraud and possible corruption.” OLAF recommended, because it has no authority to do anything else, that Hungary return €228 million to the European Commission and €55 million to the European Investment Bank. OLAF’s investigation covers the period between 2006 and 2015. As Politico noted, this period spans not just the two Orbán administrations “but also two Socialist-backed governments that ruled between 2004 and 2010.”

I have already written about the difficulties surrounding the building of this new metro line, so I will not recount the story here. Suffice it to say that when the line was eventually finished, it bore little resemblance to the original plans. It was only about 7 km long, running between the Kelenföld train station in South Buda and the Eastern Station on the Pest side. Originally, it was to run all the way to the outer sections of the city in Bosnyák tér, but because of financial difficulties the second part of the project was abandoned. As a result, the line is severely underutilized. And its cost was enormous. Benedek Jávor, Párbeszéd MEP, considers the project as it stands now “completely senseless.”

It is difficult to come by hard figures, but Politico puts the total cost of the project at €1.7 billion. According to the Hungarian version of Wikipedia, the cost was 450 billion forints, of which 180 billion came from the European Union and almost 170 billion from the central government. The City of Budapest contributed about 70 billion. The balance most likely came from the European Investment Bank.

As soon as the news of OLAF’s findings reached Budapest the debate began over who the guilty party is. The government’s first reaction was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the project. Everything was handled by the City of Budapest. (The City of Budapest, I would note, didn’t get a copy of the 104-page report OLAF sent to the government.) According to Lord Mayor István Tarlós’s office, as far as they know all the irregularities occurred between 2006 and 2010. So, the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments and Gábor Demszky, former lord mayor of Budapest, are responsible for all the “irregularities” while the Orbán government is blameless. This is hard to believe.

Since the government has not released the OLAF report, we are in total darkness about the nature of these “irregularities.” I am, however, somewhat suspicious about their alleged timeline. For starters, it was only in September 2009 that the European Commission made the decision to finance the first 7-km section of Metro-4. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that fraud and corruption occurred before that date. Most likely it did. We know only too well how business is conducted in Hungary, especially when it comes to the prospect of “free money” from Brussels.

As you can see, no money was spared on the appointments

What strengthened my suspicion of the Orbán government’s culpability in this affair was an article that appeared in the government mouthpiece Magyar Idők only a few hours ago. The title of the article is telling: “Brussels wants to saddle Orbán with the affairs of Medgyessy and Demszky.” Brussels, it would seem from the headline, is pointing the finger at Orbán. Perhaps in anticipation of such a finding, the Orbán government set out to shift the blame to Medgyessy and Demszky.

Péter Medgyessy was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. After his political career ended, he returned to his consulting business and in this capacity received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year when the final decision was made by the City of Budapest to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. In December 2014 Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $740 million in bribes to government officials around the world.

A few months ago Hungarian authorities began an investigation into the connection between Medgyessy and Alstom. The final verdict on Medgyessy’s innocence or guilt has not yet been reached, but even if it turns out that he lobbied the Demszky administration on behalf of Alstom, for which he received money from the company, it is unlikely that OLAF considers this something for which either the Hungarian government or the City of Budapest is responsible. Unless, of course, they can prove that Medgyessy tried to bribe the officials responsible for the decision to buy Alstom cars. It seems, however, that the investigative committee set up by the Budapest City Council in September has been singularly unsuccessful in proving that any of the lobbyists tried to bribe those responsible for the decision. The final report of the committee has not been published yet, but probing questions by the right-wing media to Fidesz members of the committee have failed to unearth anything about money exchanging hands in connection with the purchase of the Alstom cars.

We can’t expect any information on the OLAF investigation from official sources for months. But, just as in the past, it can easily happen that the document will be leaked to the Hungarian media. After all, Politico is in possession of certain material already. Until then it’s a guessing game.

December 22, 2016